Tuesday, April 20, 2010

America's Next Top Model?

April, the cruelest month indeed, as per my last post, has found me busy with all manner if productive if not actually germane tasks. The main thing I should be turning my attention to at this point is "the big one" I referred to obliquely in this post. Despite my excitement, I've been somewhat reluctant to speak of it to anyone except my family and some colleagues, mostly out of a sense that to say it is to make it real. It's a 30-minute piece for the Finnish Radio Symphony, to be premiered in 2011-12 in Helsinki's new concert hall, which is starting to resemble something other than the hole in the ground it's been for years. It's the biggest, most high-profile gig I've ever been offered, exactly the type of commission I've been hoping for since I was a lowly undergrad dimly aspiring to be the next great orchestral master. I had almost total freedom of form and instrumentation, so I suggested a viola concerto, a piece I've been thinking about and sketching on and off for years. It's everything I've ever wanted as a composer.

So naturally, I'm absolutely terrified, and am looking to all manner of distractions to keep from thinking about it. Luckily, the semester is winding down and students require paper input, lectures need refreshing, and new music needs to be listened to. I have a sheaf of choral pieces coming up for publication next month and the score and parts of Northlands to clean up for submission to various places, and the editing work, normally a task I despise, is somehow a welcome occupation right now. Anything to keep me from having to look at that blank score page, with only the viola's opening minute of solo music written down.

Another thing I've been spending time on is the search for compositional models for the piece. I never usually go with a single piece as lead inspiration, probably partly out of fear that whatever I'm writing will too closely resemble my object of admiration, but more out of a magpie-like tendency to collect a lot of disparate ideas at once, sorting through them over time through the act of putting my piece together. For Northlands, it was a range of things from Icelandic folk songs to Sigur Rós, Vaughan Williams, Mahler and John Luther Adams. This time, though, the pickings are a little slimmer. It might be that what I'm planning is a more abstract, more stylistically unified piece than Northlands, less palpably connected to other types of music, less a narrative of changing styles and modes of expression. Above all, it's going to be more closely connected at the rhetorical level to the concerto tradition than its predecessor for horn. Why this should be is unclear. The viola has just as little history as a concertante soloist as the horn, and just as slim a tradition either to be bound by or rebel against. I think that's why I went with the idea: it's a totally open field, nothing to stop me doing whatever I want.

And yet, I'm still casting around for ideas. The viola repertoire has yielded up some useful models, first among them the Walton concerto. This piece has been a particular favorite since my horn-playing days. (That should have been my first inkling that perhaps the career of orchestral brass player wasn't for me.) Even if Walton's wistful tunes and heady harmonies aren't your style, if nothing else the piece is a valuable lesson in how to orchestrate a viola concerto without burying the poor soloist. It's worth nothing that Walton drastically revised the orchestration many years after he first wrote the piece. Especially telling is his reduction of the number of upper string desks playing at the same time as the soloist. Also a productive study has been Luciano Berio's Voci (Folk Songs II) for viola and double chamber orchestra, a marvelous, lyrical, tragically underperformed piece.

Other than that, it's been slim pickings. Not that there's a dearth of viola concerti, just a dearth of interesting music in the genre. I've never found the sainted Bartók concerto to be a particularly convincing piece in any of its completions, and while many of the other viola concertos I've listened to have their moments, they don't ever seem to take flight as soloist vehicles, to gain the lyrical and technical brilliance that seems to come so effortlessly to the violin and cello, no matter how dull the music they're playing may be. (I'd love to hear violinist/composer Grazyna Bacewicz's essay in the genre to see how it fares, but I can't get hold of it in any form, print or audio. If it's anything like her contemporaneous Violin Concerto no. 7, it should be quite a ride.)

A significant part of this problem may be the viola's dusky, muted tone, which may explain the general tendency of viola concerto composers to go with the more soulful, intimate side of the instrument, sometimes at the expense of drama. Walton certainly lays on the bittersweet, but also manages to write highly convincing technical passages that show the instrument's timbre off at its best, in whichever register. Another reason for my lack of interest in the viola output is form. Far too many are either multi-movement pieces in that traditional three-plop service, to borrow a culinary term, of fast-slow-fast or something close thereto. What I have in mind is an episodic single-movement form, virtuosic neither at its start nor probably at the end, but definitely in the middle, which leaves me with precious few options. Feldman's gorgeous but decidedly un-concerto-like The Viola in My Life IV doesn't really seem to fit in anywhere. Finland has produced a surprising number of single-movement viola concertos that deal with the issue in vastly different ways. My former teacher Eero Hämeenniemi's piece mostly eschews the virtuosic for a quiet polyphonic dialogue. Jouni Kaipainen's concerto actually integrates the viola's projection problems in virtuosic writing into the work's narrative, playing on the lack of communication between soloist and orchestra, only allowing the viola to peek through the dense texture at the end. Kalevi Aho surmounts the difficulty by pairing a highly virtuosic viola part with a tiny chamber orchestra that sounds full without beating up on the soloist.

Stuck for models of virtuosity matched with strong formal structure and audibility of the soloist against a full orchestra, one of the pieces I recently latched onto as a subject of study is William Schuman's Violin Concerto. Dimly aware of its existence, I stumbled across it only recently after reading this review of a performance in New York. Schuman isn't a composer I'd previously paid much attention to, though many people I respect admired his music. I'd only known him through his ubiquitous New England Triptych, in the repertoire of every college band Stateside. I was expecting something similarly quaint, and so was unprepared to encounter the brawny, ballsy Violin Concerto head-on. Having listened to it several times over, I'm more and more convinced that it's the great overlooked violin concerto of the twentieth century. It's everything a concerto should be: lyrical, heroic, dramatic, insanely virtuosic, dazzling in its orchestration. Why people aren't lining up to play it is beyond me. Attuned to a certain anti-New World prejudice in the Eurocentric classical music business, especially where warhorse orchestral genres like concerti and symphonies are concerned, I naturally assume its greatest crime was to have been composed by an American, but that's not the only problem with it. It does lack a certain catchy tunefulness that seems to get concerti their spot in the hall of fame. Despite his strong lyricism, Schuman doesn't possess the melodic felicity of say, Barber, to name a contemporary whose contribution to the genre is played all the time. The orchestral part sounds ferociously difficult, which is probably another strike against it, but no more so than Sibelius, Walton or Szymanowski's First, all of which get played regularly, and are terrific pieces to boot. All in all, the Schuman concerto would seem have crowd-pleaser written all over it, and yet it's obscured in history and performance by mediocrities like the Tchaikovsky, endlessly trotting out glitzy new orchestrations of the same banal themes, developing nothing, going nowhere.

Most shocking about the Schuman concerto, though, is its form. Judging by what I read, this aspect of the work gave Schuman the most trouble, going through several incarnations from its premiere in the '40s before reaching its final version in 1959. And you can hear the years of thought that went into it, for there's nothing obvious about this piece. No three-plop concerto, or my cop-out single-movement landscape alternative, it's a complex, surprising two-movement piece with – here's the kicker – no slow movement. Both movements are highly episodic, share a similar dramatic charge, and have slow, lyrical sections, but neither indulges in long flights of slow romantic rhapsody. Schuman isn't afraid to relax the texture and let the violin sing out, though, by any means. In fact, I think where his concerto stands out above other pieces in that mid-century American style is in its willingness to allow simplicity and directness into its post-Hindemithian contrapuntal framework, shunning the restless, perpetual polyphony of lesser talents for something more intimate and emotionally complex. Nobody's sissy, Schuman is nobody's curmudgeon, either, avariciously covering the windows of his edifice to keep the sunlight and fresh air out. There's a surprising degree of humor, too, as when the first movement suddenly veers into a circus-like, tongue-in-cheek music, itself skilfully hinted at earlier, and lurches to a hasty close. Just when you think Schuman might have succumbed to an easy, throwaway ending to satisfy the gallery, the second movement opens with a chorale of dense, loud, oracular chords that emphatically state, "Do NOT underestimate me. This isn't your grandma's concerto." The end of all ends hits like a tidal wave, perfectly prepared but totally unexpected, satisfying and cathartic but never cheap. In all, it's a great piece, invigorating, overwhelming and touching in equal measure, deserving of a place in the standard repertoire and unjustly neglected.

As one may expect from the effusion of gonzo prose above, I'm waiting impatiently for the score of it I ordered (along with the magnificently tragic Eighth Symphony) so I can tear it apart and see what makes it tick. I may have found what I was looking for for my own piece. I have no doubt my viola concerto will sound nothing like Schuman in the end, but the formal working-out in his violin concerto is addictive and intriguing, and its lack of obvious solutions combined with passages of simple affectiveness is something I wish composers, myself included, would try out more often. Tough nut to crack, but I'm looking forward to it in the extreme.


Elaine Fine said...

Take a look at Alan Shulman's Theme and Variations for viola and orchestra. It is, as far as I'm concerned, the model of success, both viola-wise and orchestration-wise.

There's also Der Schwanendreher by Hindemith.

Matthew Whittall said...

Thanks for the suggestions! The Hindemith I know, but (sorry!) find a little long-winded. Trauermusik is still a favorite, though. The Shulman is definitely on my seek-out list.